BEIJING – For years, the sumptuous Scholarly House restaurant and its compound of pavilions in the center of Beijing's Dragon Lake Park has been off-limits to most park goers, catering to wealthy businessmen and government officials.
But now it has been forced to throw open its gates to the public, one of many ritzy restaurants and private clubs in public parks that have become the latest targets of an austerity campaign by the government to curb lavish banquets for party cadres — considered a breeding ground of corruption.
On a recent afternoon, curious visitors ventured over zig-zagging walkways over the water and peeked at locked-up buildings, seeing their reflections in the mirrored windows.
"What were they doing inside that they didn't want others to see?" one woman asked with indignation. "That's what our public servants are like!" retorted another park goer.
The campaign initiated last year by Chinese leader Xi Jinping has ordered these oases of exclusivity to either close down or revamp themselves as hang outs for common people. The moves won't stop favor-seeking businesspeople from seeking new, more covert venues to treat Chinese officials to banquets, but they are aimed at soothing public resentment while the Communist Party seeks longer-term solutions to pervasive corruption.
"They cannot close all the fancy restaurants in the streets, but members of the public detest the ones in the parks the most, because parks are where they exercise, play and relax," said law professor Jiang Ming'an at Peking University.
The Scholarly House is turning off its kitchen stoves later this month after the Chinese New Year's holiday, a receptionist who gave her family name of Yu said over the phone. "Our location is not so good," she said.
Over the past decade, upscale restaurants sprung up inside China's urban parks as enterprising operators took advantage of ambiguous land-use rules and park and local government officials sought extra revenue. While many of these spots were technically open to the public, their high prices — the Scholarly House could fetch $250 per person — put them out of reach of ordinary people, and some required membership.
"Those high-end restaurants are usually where businesspeople are trying to rope in government officials with bribes," Jiang said.
In May, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a ruling that no public space should be hogged by only a few people, and since then high-end restaurants in parks across China have been asked to close or retool their menus.
Last month, state-run media went on a blitz to publicize closures of restaurants and members-only clubs in the parks of Beijing and the scenic southern city of Hangzhou.
The campaign has in some cases run rough-shod over the rights of private restaurant owners, Beijing-based political commentator Shi Shusi said.
"The restaurants in the parks are easy to pick on," Shi said. "What the leaders are trying to win for now is public opinion so they may have more time and space to figure out their next step to fight corruption, which we have yet to see."
The restaurants have had no choice but to obey.
"It came quite suddenly, and we were not prepared," Shen Yongzhen, manager of the upscale Lotus Manor in Hangzhou's scenic West Lake area, said on state television. "But we are firmly supporting the decision by party authorities."
In central Beijing's Beihai Park, once an imperial garden, at least two fancy restaurants were shut down, but a more affordable restaurant has stayed on.
In northwest Beijing's free-admission Purple Bamboo Park, a fence has now been removed around the Pavilion of the Inquiring Moon restaurant, which commands a tranquil moon-over-water view at night. The restaurant has swapped banquet tables for square tables for four, and added moderately priced dishes to the menu.
While the manager said the fence was not meant to keep out the public, it held a symbolic significance.
"It was a fence between the haves and the have-nots," said Yao Bo, a Beijing-based commentator. "It psychologically created some sort of secrecy, and ordinary people would stop there, but not step over."